When Matthew Lawson was nearly smashed to pieces, he was plunged into an endless labyrinth of pain and confusion. Lights, voices, medicine, darkness, chaotic crowds followed by endless stretches of time alone, discomfort, foul smells, and cold suddenly swirled together in a maelstrom of uncertainty and misery. Matthew Lawson was not given to flights of emotion, but he had rarely known hopelessness and it hadn't been since North Africa that he felt true fear. Now, they were both threatening to overtake him. In those first few days of disorientation he tried to recall his military training, then his police training, then his Scouts training, anything that would help ground him and keep the despair at bay. In the end all his foggy mind could manage was counting. He counted the number of beds, the number of doctors, the number of times Lucien Blake sighed at him woefully, but the numbers usually slipped out of his mind as fast as he could add them up. Taking stock of his situation a few days later, he was able to count three things.
No. 1. Pain. Matthew was no stranger to injury. He had broken bones, been stabbed, been punched, even had a bullet graze his arm, but none of then were the lasting agony of this injury. In the first few days, desperate to keep a clear head and solve he and Charlie's near-murder, he refused all pain medication. After, he would only allow enough to take the edge off. He was still the acting Superintendent and he had a station to run. There were times the nurses overruled him and the world faded into a blur, end even then he could still feel the burning of torn muscle and ruined nerves.
No. 2. Shame. This was the end and Matthew knew it. He could tell what it all meant: the looks of pity from nurses, Jean's fussing, the way people he barely knew came to visit. His career was over. His standing in the town was gone. He'd gone from proud copper to limping pensioner in the span of a moment. It might have been more bearable if he'd been shot or been done in facing down a suspect. He could have at least ended his career with a story to tell. But being hit by a car was pathetic. It did not matter to him that people would mutter the world 'hero' in between their sympathetic moaning. He used to command respect, now he submitted to pity. It was humiliating.
No. 3. Someone was holding his hand. They spoke to him in hushed tones, sometimes barely audible in the din of a busy hospital. They told him to breathe when the pain was bad. They urged sleep in the dark of night. When he was in a medicated haze, confused and agitated, they calmed him. He could not figure out who it was, if it was a person at all, but the sensation of cool skin against his own was something for his mind to focus on beyond his own misery. It was a woman's voice he heard. At first he thought it was his mother, conjured up in a haze of blood loss and pain. Perhaps it was a nurse, or a team of them he couldn't tell apart. Perhaps it was Jean looking after him when Lucien was away. After he was released from the hospital he was packed off to Melbourne for a long recovery at his sister's house and it didn't seem to matter. Matthew was not sure that it wasn't all in his head. However his ordeal was far from over, and in the dead of night, exhausted but awake from the pain, he wished the voice was still there. He wished someone was holding his hand.
Matthew was expecting the call from police headquarters. He knew how it would go, he had made he call himself a few times. He would be thanked for his service, he was medically unfit for duty, but once he filled out the paperwork he could collect his pension and they would throw in a medal for heroism. He did not plan to argue with them. Surprisingly, instead of a dismissal they offered him a raise and begged him to return to Ballarat. Apparently their past meddling in local affairs had left the station in shambles. Every superintendent to pass through in recent years had left with a stain on their reputation and if that included Matthew, Melbourne had determined that his stain was more faded than the rest. He knew the town and its people and above all, he had the respect of his men. While Matthew knew he wasn't up to the task yet he also knew they would not ask twice.
Things had not changed much in his absence. Blake was still impossible, Charlie was still reliable, Alice remained the imperious queen of the morgue, and Hobart was still...there. It was a relief. If Matthew had learned one thing in the last few tumultuous years, it was who he could rely on. Matthew was solitary by nature and he didn't concern himself with having many friends, but he was grateful for the ones he did have when times got tough.
When Matthew first met Alice he did not care for her. She was cold, abrasive, and had a bad habit of correcting people just to show off how smart she was. When Lucien insisted on bringing her into the fold of his extended family, Matthew did not relish being trapped for long dinners in awkward conversation or avoiding arguments in an attempt not to offend. He was right, in the beginning. Once she felt more comfortable in the Blake residence, Matthew found she had a sharp sense of humor and demonstrated a fierce loyalty towards Lucien and seemed to extend the same courtesy to Matthew. They shared many values, both professionally and personally. She was exacting in her work and did not tolerate fools. She was brave and had stared down threats better than some seasoned policemen he knew. Like Matthew, she enjoyed being alone or in the company of a trusted few. Matthew found that he didn't mind being one of those people.
It wasn't until Matthew moved into the Blake house that they really started to get to know each other. Alice would come over for dinner at least once a week. Rose would often join them as well. They would all sit for long evenings chatting. While Lucien and Matthew were both night owls, of late Lucien would retire for "an early night" soon after Jean. Rose would say her good nights before sneaking up to Charlie's room. Matthew knew what was up and had the good sense to keep it to himself. If Alice noticed she didn't say. They would sit across the room from each other, making small talk or discussing the newest case. Sometimes an easy silence settled on them, Matthew reading the paper, Alice pouring over a borrowed medical text. It was during one of these quiet evenings that Alice and Matthew arranged their first date, though neither of them realized it.
"The Courier here says that new Cary Grant film is good."
Alice didn't look up from her book.
"I don't know him."
Matthew looked incredulous.
"Everyone knows Cary Grant. The movie actor?"
Alice looked up.
"If he's from the cinema I wouldn't know him. I've never been."
"How's that possible?"
Alice looked embarrassed.
"I don't know."
"I'll tell you what. Why don't we go together? Lucien and Jean can come too."
Alice was hesitant at first but eventually warmed to the idea. She had such a good time she agreed to go again. However on their next trip, Lucien and Jean were forced to cancel due to an unforeseen conflict. Matthew was more than a little suspicious of the surprise scheduling conflict given they all lived under the same roof, but he and Alice had a pleasant time anyway. After that they started meeting more often on their own. Alice was still a fixture at the Blake house, and in between they would go to the pictures or meet for tea after work. They might have continued this way indefinitely if not for Lucien and Jean's wedding.
It was a simple but elegant affair. They kept the guest list to close friends and associates. In the week preceding the event Matthew had been busy with his duties as best man, picking up suits and rings, arranging a stag night, and helping deliver place settings. He would normally despise such silliness but he made an exception for Lucien. It wasn't until well into the reception that he spied Alice. She was off in a corner, watching the crowd with interest. Having spent several hours managing Lucien and then glad-handing wedding guests, Matthew was more than happy to take a break from the commotion, and even happier when they decided to escape the crowds entirely.
They stood near one of the grand wrought iron balconies of the Colonists Club overlooking the street. Alice pulled out a cigarette case and offered one to Matthew.
"Don't tell Lucien. Jean made him quit."
Alice lit two cigarettes and handed one to him.
"I'm sure he has other things on his mind right now."
For a while they didn't speak, watching the people come and go on Lydiard Street. Matthew didn't mind. He appreciated someone who didn't feel the need to fill every silence with meaningless chatter. Eventually Alice did speak, and it startled him.
"I am surprised you never married."
"Yes, you. You seem so family oriented, looking after Rose and all your constables."
"I'm not looking after them I am keeping them from destroying themselves along with the rest of this bloody town."
"You know what I mean. There was never anyone for you?"
Matthew took a long time to answer.
"There was, once. Before the war. I was a young constable. She lived on the next street. We were school sweethearts. She was going to wait for me, so we could be married after the war. I put most of a year's pay into a ring. But I guess the war went on too long. By the time I got back, she was married to a bloke who got a deferment to work in the shipyards."
Alice squeezed his arm.
"Don't be. It was along time ago. After that, I moved around the state as the police force required and never really settled down. So that was that. Your turn now."
"You started it. How come a nice girl like you never married?"
"I'm not nice or a girl, Matthew."
"My apologies. But you didn't answer the question."
Alice turned away and looked out over the balcony.
"Just unlucky, I guess. Most men find me wanting. Either I am not pretty enough, or I can't cook, or I read too much. I am never going to make a man happy and I don't see why I should spend the rest of my life trying."
"Don't say that Alice."
Matthew reached out and took her hand, his mind scrambling to come up with some words of comfort. He was distracted by a sense that he had been here before. Their quiet voices, the feeling of her cool, slender hand in his, it all felt eerily familiar. His silence must have unnerved her.
"I'm sorry Matthew, I've made you uncomfortable. We should get back inside."
Matthew still held on to her hand.
"This all feels so familiar."
"I doubt it. I haven't been to a wedding in years."
"No not that. Alice, when I was in hospital did you come visit me?"
"I may have looked in from time to time."
"Only from time to time?"
"Well I was busy and..."
Matthew cut her off, "Some one was there, holding my hand. Almost every night. Was that you?"
Alice dropped her cigarette and snubbed it out, keeping her eyes on the ground.
"I was worried about you. I didn't want to attract any attention or get in the way so I would stop by late in the evenings after visiting hours. The nurses all know me so they didn't mind."
"I don't know how I didn't figure it out before. All those evenings. I'm not sure I would have got through it without you."
"You would have been fine. And it wasn't every night. I had to work late on cases some evenings or attend meetings at the hospital. And I had to feed my cat."
"You have a cat?"
"Yes. She keeps to herself mostly."
"At some point I was unable to be there two evenings in a row, and then you were gone. They told me you were going to your sister in Melbourne. Honestly I thought I'd never see you again."
"Alice, I don't know what to say. I can't thank you enough."
"Nonsense. I just didn't want to see you suffer alone."
"Well thanks to you, I didn't."
Inside the reception, the band began some waltz or another by Strauss. The notes flowed gently out onto the balcony on the warm fall breeze. Matthew stubbed out his forgotten cigarette on the railing and cleared his throat.
"Dr. Harvey, may I have this dance?"
Alice looked worried.
"What about your leg?"
"You've got me this far, haven't you? But you may have to hold on to me, just in case."
Alice smiled shyly and took his hand.
"Well, if it's for your safety."
"It most certainly is."
Matthew put his hand around Alice's waist and pulled her in close. He thought that perhaps this wedding would not be too bad after all. The dance ended all too soon and at Alice's insistence Matthew went back inside to resume his duties as best man. He didn't see much of her for the rest of the afternoon, but was able to catch her as she gathered her things to leave.
"Going already, Alice?"
"I've had al the fun I can take. Besides, Lucien and Jean snuck out a quarter of an hour ago."
"Lucky them. Listen, why don't you let me take you out proper this week? Have dinner with me."
"Wouldn't that be a professional conflict of interest?"
"I won't tell if you don't."
"Well, all right, dinner then. But I still want to go to the pictures with you when the new film comes out."
Matthew grinned and leaned in close.
"You got it, sweetheart. I'd never miss an opportunity to hold your hand."